So says Tom Nassif when speaking of the development of the Western Growers Center for Innovation & Technology.
The technology incubator, aimed at bringing farmers and entrepreneurs together to develop solutions for challenges facing production agriculture, is housed on the first floor of the Taylor Farms complex in downtown Salinas. That alone is worthy of recognition but even more importantly it was Bruce Taylor’s vision that led to the idea in the first place.
“He deserves all the credit in the world,” said Nassif, who is president and CEO of Western Growers. “At a board meeting when he was chairman (2014), Bruce invited John Hartnett of SVG Partners to make a presentation about what SVG was doing and what Western Growers could do to support the effort.”
That began the negotiations and launched the idea of an ag technology incubator in Salinas. The Western Growers board did vote to support the effort but “we wanted to be the sponsor. We wanted it to be the Western Growers incubator,” Nassif said.
In praising Taylor’s vision, Nassif said that Bruce came up with the idea, provided the physical space and also donated money to get it off the ground. He was joined by Vic Smith of JV Smith Companies as an early funder, which Nassif said was as important as anything else in getting the idea off the ground.
It is three years later and Nassif said reality has matched the vision. “It has been an unqualified success. We have far exceeded our expectations.”
He noted that at the beginning, “we thought that maybe we could get as many as 30 tenants with some using it as a hot desk when they were in the area. Now we have in excess of 53 tenants. They have attracted a lot of venture capital money and they are working on industry issues.”
He noted that Western Growers involvement has led to the AgSharks competition, which saw an unprecedented investment of more than $2 million in ag technology at WG’s 2017 Annual Meeting. “It was a resounding success. We are going to do it again this year. I don’t know how much investment it will attract but, at the minimum, the companies will be competing for $250,000 for the best ag innovation.”
From Western Growers perspective, Nassif said the WGCIT concept has already reached fruition. “We were never in it to make money,” he said. “What we wanted to do was create an environment to help solve some of the industry’s most vexing problems, especially in the area of water and labor. And that is what’s happening.”
He said entrepreneurs are working together and working with members on several different pilot projects addressing the industry’s problems. The effort has led to robust activity with regard to technology in the ag sector, including the excellent relationship Western Growers has forged with Forbes and its AgTech Summit held in Salinas for the past three years. He added that Dennis Donohue as the center’s lead and WG’s Hank Giclas, senior vice president of strategic planning, science & technology, have done yeoman’s work in advancing the effort and bringing parties together to work on the issues. He also said the industry at large has supported the concept and followed the lead of Western Growers in recognizing the value of technology and the important role it has to play in the survival and profitability of the fresh produce industry. He said investment is continuing and Western Growers is looking at many different opportunities in the ag technology space.
But Nassif came back to Bruce Taylor and reiterated that he truly made it possible. “The Western Growers Center for Innovation & Technology has become exactly what we had hoped it would be…and Bruce was the visionary.”